?The next national poll, hard-hitting parliamentarian Dr Keith Rowley told the House last October, "will be the Udecott election."
Matters probed by the Uff Commission of Enquiry, Rowley attested, were "ten times worst than what happened in Piarco Airport. It's even more brazen. I can't believe they could have been so bold." He added: "Today, every school child knows there is something called Udecott and it smells to high heavens. The whole country says the problem ... ought to be dealt with by changing the board (of directors)." Rowley likened the Udecott affair to the Johnny O'Halloran corruption stench of the 1970s and 80s, still the defining bobol racket of independent T&T. He recalled campaigning in the 1986 general election: "You going door to door and they slamming doors in your face... all they telling you about is O'Halloran." The Udecott scandal was Rowley's passionate personal crusade, partly because he sacrificed his lofty ministerial job over his hardline demand for probity, in the process becoming an uncompromising whistleblower. But undoubtedly the taxpayer-funded construction behemoth is this decade's axis of public corruption, perceived as the flagbearer of bid-rigging, nepotism and squandermania.
To be sure, the independent jury is still out, as the country awaits the thorough probe of Prof John Uff and his investigators. But by his nonchalant approach to the ever-deepening scandal and his apparent cuddling of Calder Hart, Prime Minister Patrick Manning has gotten the Udecott filth smeared all over his political suit. Some politicians never learn from history. The Udecott imbroglio is a throwback to the Piarco mess of the Basdeo Panday years, a tale of wild financial excesses by certain project executives.
There was the perfunctory Justice Lennox Deyalsingh probe of 1997, which looked at "inconsistencies" in the award of $110 million worth of contracts to the NYC Consortium. But that enquiry served little good. By the time a returning Manning regime vengefully set up the Justice Clinton Bernard probe, the Piarco Airport stench had become corruption lore and had sullied the image of the Panday era for all times. Manning's People's National Movement was installed into national office on the threadbare justification of "religious and moral values," in what would probably remain the most constitutionally staggering decision ever made at President's House. It was the PNM, you see, that had been voted out in 1986 in a national uproar against O'Halloran-headlined corruption, so succinctly defined by Desmond Cartey as "all ah we t'ief."
ANR Robinson, in his incarnation as an anti-PNM politician before he morphed into Head of State, had launched withering corruption allegations at the party. Indeed, his historic 1986 National Alliance for Reconstruction election triumph resulted, in part, from an assurance of being the antidote to the bobol-tainted PNM. George Chambers had promised in his five years as Prime Minister to institutionalise an Integrity Commission, which, had he kept his solemn promise, would have helped to demark his tenure from the callous indifference of the previous Eric Williams administration. O'Halloran, after all, was Williams' confidante to the end. Chambers went the way of all political flesh, making no sustainable efforts to duel with the national sore of corruption with the national purse. He took no hint when Sparrow, in his epic We Like It So, deadpanned about "the northern and southern idols/the two kingpins of bobol." Robinson's installation of a PNM Government on the basis of clean political hands is a poignant comment on two essential matters. One was how dramatically his perspective had changed in a decade and a half. The second is how wretched the Panday regime was then being viewed. As an aside, the Robinson administration did, indeed, make a stout effort at political probity, symbolised by the register of gifts which was introduced for government officials.
To be sure, the O'Halloran, Piarco and Hart scandals are mere emblems of wanton financial impropriety by the relevant ruling regimes of the day, there being abundant stories, large and small, about underhanded deals, contract fixing, inflated project pricing and other renderings of ill-gotten gains. No political administration–with the possible exception of Robinson–displayed commitment and will to counter a scourge that is culturally ingrained and which represents a colossal failing of post-colonial rule. This is a woeful comment on leadership, in particular, and also the barrenness of relevant institutions. It is, for example, a damning indictment on President Max Richards that there has not been an Integrity Commission for a year even in the midst of swirling claims of malfeasance in public office. The Integrity Commission is no foolproof bulwark against bobol, since, in this land of ingenuity and cunning, cheating the treasury requires mere native craft and compliant accomplices. But the legislative teeth of a commission symbolises a society's commitment to removing graft from the hallways of power and offers a first line of defence against grease-hands. President Richards has badly bungled what ought to be a procedural administrative matter.
His appointment of the short-lived commission last year was as ham-fisted as was his naming of Michael Annisette as an independent senator, both exercises unveiling a lack of research and basic awareness of the society. That that could have emerged from President's House and from an office-holder who, as a previous principal of the university campus was integrally linked to the land, is a telling comment on Mr Richards. The Head of State must appoint an Integrity Commission post-haste, tossing aside the absurdity of being unable to find a worthy accountant as a member. But in a country whose struggle against financial wrongdoing dates back to Gene Miles' selfless crusade of the 1960s, there is urgent and focused need for an all-encompassing attack on this crime against the people. It must ideally begin with decisive and uncompromising leadership from the political administration. PM Manning's virtual embrace of Hart and vitriolic denouncement of his critics does not reassure a besieged nation.
Neither does Minister Dr Emily Gaynor Dick-Forde's ludicrous apology and defence of a construction czar who has been a central figure in a multi-million-dollar public probe. Leaders must treat the nation with more respect. The people must demand it!
�2 Ken Ali co-hosts the Morning Panchayat each weekday
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